The Electoral Office has announced the line-up of candidates for the Stormont poll, and the most immediately striking fact is that Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, leader of the UK Unionist Party, is running in six of the eighteen constituencies. Not the UKUP in six constituencies – the party is running in thirteen, in six of which the Cream Bun will be the standard-bearer. Under the Good Friday Agreement, it is not quite clear what will happen if Bob gets elected more than once – would he have to give one of his seats to a substitute, or would he have more than one vote in the Assembly? Nobody seems to know. This may seem par-for-the-course egomania from the man whose political vehicle used to appear on ballot papers as the “United Kingdom Unionist Robert McCartney Party”. Or possibly one may speculate that Chairman Bob has invented human cloning. But it’s the latest unpredictable move in Bob’s long and colourful political career.I remember, back in the late 80s and early 90s, when Bob broke with the Official Unionists and began proclaiming a “new unionism”. This “new unionism” (it sometimes went by the name of “civic unionism”) would be stripped of the old conservatism of the OUP – this was when Smiler Molyneaux was running the show – and have no truck with the DUP’s religious fundamentalism. Rather, it would look to the dynamic, multicultural society across the water. Bob hammered the message home in endless articles in the Telegraph, the News Letter and Fortnight, and lots of bien pensants took him seriously. So much so that a certain type of cerebral unionist viewed Bob as the prince over the water.
It may seem strange now, but when Bob first got into Westminster, then set up the UKUP, he drew much of his kitchen cabinet – notably his aide-de-camp Jeff Dudgeon – from the far left, and specifically from the milieu influenced by the British and Irish Communist Organisation, who Bob had worked with in the Campaign for Equal Citizenship (although he later fell out with Brendan Clifford, and the BICO has since returned to a republican position). The BICO connection would also explain Bob’s close links with the small neo-unionist coterie in the British Labour Party which at the time was going under the banner of Democracy Now. This included Kate Hoey (still an MP on the extreme right of the party), Leo McKinstry (who has since left the party, ate all the pies, and become a why-oh-why pundit for the Daily Express) and Gary Kent (a key point-man in the Labour Friends of Iraq/Unite Against Terror/Euston Manifesto nexus). And these links would explain why Bob chose to declare himself a soulmate of Mr Tony Blair, and told the startled proletariat of Cultra that he would take the Labour whip in the Commons.
Nothing came of that, and, although Bob made lots of “modern” and “civic” noises – and, mind-bogglingly, managed to recruit the Cruiser – the essential logic of unionism still came through. Even when the UKUP was in its first flush of success, a careful examination of its candidate lists would have revealed a surfeit of headbangers who at various points had been slung out of the OUP, the DUP or both. Eccentrics like Dudgeon and the Cruiser, while they lasted, played an ornamental role rather than setting the tone. And so it worked out that, while the PUP/UVF provided Trimble with muscle, Chairman Bob provided the DUP with a brain. Punters in North Down who thought they were getting a moderate realised that what they in fact had was a Paisleyite minus the Bible.
Apart from that, Bob’s tactlessness and poor man-management skills have told against him. He lost himself a wheen of votes on publicly describing the nice people of Holywood as “rent-a-mob”. Holywood people, who will still gripe about having a Belfast telephone code, did not take kindly to being insulted by this buachaill cúinne and turned out en masse to put Lady Sylvia Hermon into Westminster. Dudgeon lost the faith and defected to Trimble; the Cruiser retired back to the warm bosom of the South Dublin neo-democratic chattering class. Most famously, five of the six UKUP Assembly members – that is, everyone bar Bob – walked out to set up the Norn Iron Unionist Party. It must have given Bob some satisfaction that his treacherous comrades all lost their seats at the last Stormont election – scant consolation, since he was out of Westminster, only scraping back to Stormont, and his main political achievement has been to gift the DUP a base they never had in North Down.
This then poses a problem for Bob, as in the upcoming election he seeks to challenge the DUP from the right. The trouble is, most of the people he might seek to recruit to his dissident unionist slate have long experience of working with him, and are none too keen to work with him again. Bob has obviously hit on the brilliant scheme of circumventing his lack of allies by simply running himself multiple times. Why be a general without an army when you can be your own army?